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The Hum Bug

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Chapter One

"True! -- vexed -- very dreadfully vexed am I. But why will
you say that I am mad?"

"Because you are mad at something, Eddie darling," my young
wife endearingly insisted, pausing in the task that had engaged
both her energies and attention since our return from breakfast.
This was the mending of a small but conspicuous tear in the seat of
my trousers, sustained when -- upon arising from the communal
dining table -- I had somehow managed to snag the fabric in a small
splinter of rattan protruding from the caning of my chair.

"I can't imagine why you're being so sulky," Sissy observed in a
gently reproving tone. "Particularly after dining on such heavenly
food." Seated in the capacious armchair that occupied a corner of
our room -- my perforated garment spread across her lap -- she
reapplied herself to her needlework while continuing thusly: "I
sincerely hope, however, that you haven't worked yourself into a
state over this teensy little hole. Your pants will look as good as
new once I've worked my magic upon them."

This remark -- uttered in a spirit of such pure, such artless
devotion -- could not fail to lighten, if not entirely dissipate,
the angry cloud of gloom that had settled so weightily upon my
soul. Garbed in the dressing gown I had donned after divesting
myself of my trousers, I gazed warmly at my seraphic soul-mate and
whimsically declared: "I fear, darling Sissy, that even your
unsurpassed skills as a seamstress cannot restore my attire to such
a pristine condition -- not indeed, unless the needle you
wield with such consummate dexterity were the magic wand of the
fairy enchantress in Perrault's immortal tale of 'Cendrillon,' who
-- with a single incantation -- could transform a mere gourd of the
variety Cucurbita pepo into a magnificent

Though meant as a pleasant riposte, this latter remark bore
more than a tincture of all-too-bitter truth; for -- owing to my
badly straitened circumstances -- the garment upon which Sissy was
"working her magic" was in a sadly deteriorated condition, even
apart from the injury it had suffered that morning.

"Still," I continued, "it is not this unfortunate -- and
exceedingly inopportune -- mishap that has so unsettled my

"Then what in the world has?" Sissy exclaimed, her voice betraying
the merest hint of impatience.

In his magisterial (if occasionally ponderous) Philosophical
Discourses on God, Man, and Destiny,
no less an authority than
Gottfried von Büchner observes that the most significant
occurrences in human history have often sprung from mundane, if not
entirely trivial, causes. So it proved with the extraordinary
sequence of events it is my present purpose to recount. In
attempting to trace the origin of these wild -- these
unparalleled -- adventures, I am led inexorably back to that
seemingly unremarkable morning on which Sissy and I engaged in the
foregoing talk. Before proceeding with my narrative, therefore, I
must pause to acquaint the reader with the train of circumstances
leading up to the above-cited exchange.

My name is Edgar Allan Poe. For several years prior to the
commencement of my tale, I had been residing in Philadelphia with
that heaven-sent pair to whom I owed whatever measure of felicity I
have known in this life. I mean, of course, my darling wife and
soul-mate, Virginia, and her mother, my Aunt Maria Clemm, toward
whom I felt all the ardor -- the gratitude -- the sheer,
overpowering devotion -- of an adoring son. Completing our
household was our handsome female tabby, Cattarina, a creature of
such beguiling habits and preternatural intelligence that she was
treated less as a mere pet than as a fourth and much-beloved member
of the family.

Within the sacred sphere of my domestic circumstances, I enjoyed a
nearly perfect contentment. The situation, however, was markedly
different as regards my professional affairs. These, indeed, were
of a most unsatisfying -- a most insupportable -- nature. In
my capacity as editor of Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's
I had managed to increase the circulation of that
publication more than fourfold in the two years of my employment.
And yet, my accomplishments had received neither proper recognition
nor adequate remuneration from the owner. On the contrary. While
Mr. Graham had profited mightily from my unceasing labors on behalf
of his enterprise, my own salary had remained fixed at the pitiable
rate of $800 per annum -- a sum entirely insufficient for the
support of myself and my dependents.

Equally egregious was my employer's increasing interference in
matters pertaining to the editorial content of the magazine.
In particular, he had begun to offer vociferous complaints about
the ostensibly insulting character of my critical views --
especially my opinions on the deplorable state of American letters,
as well as on the generally vulgar and unformed sensibilities of
the public at large. That the occasional asperity of my tone
resulted from a sincere desire to elevate the
still-rudimentary tastes of my countrymen seemed to matter not a
whit to Mr. Graham, whose only concern was to pander to the vanity
of his subscribers by assuring them of their (supposed) cultural
superiority. At length -- perceiving that, despite my most
determined efforts, the magazine was fated to degenerate into yet
another namby-pamby assemblage of cloying illustrations, gaudy
fashion-plates, treacly love stories, and other such sentimental
clap-trap -- I saw no choice but to resign my position.

As the home of the immortal Dr. Franklin -- founder of the first
lending library in America, great benefactor of our first public
university, and himself the author of a classic (if, at times,
overly pedantic) autobiography -- Philadelphia held an illustrious
position in the intellectual history of our nation. It had been
many years, however, since it could claim preeminence as a center
of literary production and publication. That distinction now
belonged to the great, bustling metropolis that lay one hundred
miles to the northeast. With few or no prospects of employment in
the so-called (but, in my experience, sadly misdesignated) "City of
Brotherly Love," I thus made the bold resolution to abandon
Philadelphia altogether and seek my fortunes among the brash,
ambitious literati of New York.

My plan -- arrived at in consultation with my loved ones -- was to
depart at once in the company of my darling wife. Muddy* would
remain behind with Cattarina, joining us as soon as Sissy and I had
located -- and established ourselves in -- a suitable dwelling.
Accordingly, late on the afternoon of April 5, 1844, Sissy and I --
after bidding a fervent farewell to our dearest Muddy -- took a
hack to the Walnut Street railroad station. After a wait of
approximately forty-five minutes -- during which we sat in loving
proximity on a hard wooden bench, perusing the most recent edition
of the Philadelphia Ledger -- we boarded a train to Perth Amboy,
New Jersey. From thence, we set out by steamboat for Manhattan,
arriving at our destination on the afternoon of April 6, during an
exceedingly violent thunderstorm.

Owing to the severity of the weather -- as well as to the somewhat
fragile state of Sissy's health -- I thought it best to leave my
dear wife snugly ensconced on the boat, while I went off in search
of a lodging house. After stowing our trunks in the Ladies Cabin, I
embarked on my quest, stopping first to purchase a blue cotton
umbrella from a sidewalk peddler for the somewhat exorbitant price
of sixty-two cents. Thus shielded against the driving sheets of
rain, I made my way along Greenwich Street and, within minutes, had
come upon a somewhat weatherworn but perfectly respectable-looking
lodging house, not far from Cedar Street. A room had just become
vacant, which the landlady, Mrs. Morrison, was willing to rent at
an exceptionally modest rate, considering the desirable location of
the house as well as its abundant amenities. We quickly reached an
agreement, whereupon I secured a hack and returned to the wharf for
Sissy. Altogether, I had not been gone for more than half-an-hour,
and she was quite astonished to see me back so soon. With the help
of the driver, I loaded our trunks into the carriage; then off we
drove to the lodging house.

Settled into our new accommodations, we supped -- slept -- then
arose much refreshed and descended to breakfast. While I would not
-- contra Sissy -- have characterized our morning meal as heavenly
(it being impossible to conceive of such substantial fare as
pertaining to the incorporeal realm of the seraphim), it was
unquestionably delicious. We had excellent-flavored coffee, hot and
strong; elegant tea cakes; a great dish of ham and another of cold
veal slices; eggs; cheese; bread-and-butter -- and everything in
the greatest profusion. I could not recall the last time I had
dined so heartily at breakfast (or, indeed, at any other period of
the day).

Had this feast been enjoyed solely in the company of our landlady
and her husband -- a fat, good-natured old soul with a remarkable
growth of fleecy, gray whiskers -- I would have felt utterly
contented. Regrettably, there were a half-dozen other boarders at
the table, among whom was a hollow-chested, anemic young clerk
named Griswald, who conducted an unintermitting monologue during
the course of the meal, despite the fact that his mouth was
continuously stuffed with partially masticated food. Even more than
the irritating timbre of his voice, the unsightliness of his
appearance, and the deplorable quality of his table-manners,
however, it was one particular subject of his conversation that had
so upset me during that otherwise splendid repast.

Now, as I sat in our room beside Sissy -- who had temporarily
suspended her sewing while awaiting my reply to her somewhat
exasperated query -- I recalled her attention to that singularly
irritating personage. "The blame for my present, disgruntled mood,"
I observed, "may be laid to the individual who was seated directly
across from us at breakfast."

"Mr. Griswald?" Sissy asked, her expression, no less than her tone,
conveying genuine surprise. "He did go on a bit. But on the whole,
he seemed like a pleasant enough young gentleman."

"I cannot concur with your opinion, dearest Sissy, having found his
incessant chatter, no less than his etiquette, intensely

Casting me a mischievous look, my darling wife replied: "Are you
sure that you aren't just jealous of all the attention he was
giving me?"

"I do not fault him for that," I answered with an indulgent smile.
"For such are your charms, dear Sissy, that no man -- not even the
most boorish -- could fail to fall under their spell." This
observation was no less than simple truth, for -- at twenty-three
years of age -- my Virginia had ripened into a surpassingly radiant
specimen of womanhood, whose hyacinthine hair -- flawless
complexion -- brilliant brown eyes -- harmoniously curved nostrils
-- and sweet, dimpled mouth -- combined to create a vision of
loveliness more wildly divine than the fantasies which hovered
about the slumbering souls of the daughters of Delos.

Flushing with pleasure, Sissy returned to her needlework while
stating: "Well, then, I am at a complete loss to explain your
crabby mood."

"Do you recall the main subject of young Griswald's conversation?"
I inquired.

"Of course," Sissy answered. "He was talking about his recent visit
to Mr. Barnum's American Museum. I must say, it sounds like

"If by fun," I replied somewhat caustically, "you intend to signify
all that is most vulgar, sensational, and unredeemed by the merest
whit of aesthetic value, then I cannot take issue with your

"But you seemed interested in hearing about it, too," Sissy
protested. "Didn't you ask to borrow that handbill he was showing

"Very true. The item to which you refer can be found in the right
front pocket of my trousers. And if you consult it, you will
discover the source of my present distress."

"There!" Sissy exclaimed at that moment, biting off the excess
length of thread with her small -- remarkably white -- and
perfectly regular -- front incisors. "Now let's see what has made
you so grumpy."

Reaching into the pocket I had specified, she extracted a folded
sheet of paper, then handed me my trousers. I saw at once that
these had been repaired with a skill that would have drawn envious
sighs from the swift-fingered spinners of the Kingdom of Han, whose
silken cloth -- according to legend -- was woven with such
exquisite art that the Emperor Wang-Fo himself felt unworthy to
wear a robe fashioned from it.

In consideration of Sissy's maidenly sensibilities, I had,
throughout the course of our marriage, maintained the highest
standards of modesty and decorum in my relations with her. Now --
in keeping with this practice -- I stepped into a far corner of the
room, outside my dear wife's line of vision, before divesting
myself of my dressing gown and donning my newly mended pants. I
then reseated myself on the edge of our bedstead.

Sissy, in the meantime, continued to peruse the handbill, an
expression of intense, childlike pleasure suffusing her face. All
at once, she looked at me with wide, scintillant eyes. "What fun!"
she exclaimed. "Just listen."

Redirecting her gaze to the handbill, she began to read aloud in a
voice that trilled with excitement: "Come see P. T. Barnum's
American Museum! The largest amusement enterprise on the face of
the globe! A palace of marvel, mystery, and wonder! Novel and
astounding exhibitions comprising more than 50,000 curiosities from
every portion of the globe, among which are -- the Amazing Murray
Midgets, the most diminutive triplets in the world! --
Minnie-Christine, the renowned two-headed lady! -- Hoomie and Iola,
the wild Australian children! -- Big Hannah and Big John, the two
heaviest people ever known to exist! -- Crowley the Man-Horse,
Nature's most astounding freak! -- Waino and Plutano, the Wild Men
of Borneo! -- Signor Giovanni and his remarkable troupe of bird
actors! -- Dr. Hall's Eskimo dog! -- A living, three-horned bull!
-- The Grand Aquarium! -- Miss Zobeide Luti, the Circassian Beauty!
-- Count Borulawski's Bohemian glass-blowers! -- "

Interrupting her recitation, she glanced up at me again and said,
somewhat breathlessly: "Doesn't it sound grand?"

By way of reply, I screwed my features into an expression of
extreme distaste.

"So far as I can see, Eddie," Sissy declared in a gently chiding
tone, "there's nothing here that should have upset you in the
least. Do you know what I think? I think you just have trouble
taking pleasure in things."

"You are wrong, Sissy," I replied. "There are many things from
which I derive the deepest -- the most intense -- pleasure, not the
least being your own dear self. What I do not appreciate, however,"
I continued, "is having the sacred memory of a beloved friend
exploited for the most crass, pecuniary reasons by a self-confessed

"Why, whatever do you mean?" my darling wife cried, her alabaster
brow furrowing in confusion.

"If you examine the bottom portion of Mr. Barnum's advertisement,"
I stated, "you will find out."

Obeying my directive, she turned her gaze to the designated place
and, after examining the page silently for a moment, read: "Among
the numerous exhibitions of unique educational, historical, and
scientific interest, visitors will find such singular attractions
as a splendid specimen of a living Ourang Outang from Borneo! -- A
child with one body, two arms, two heads, and four legs! -- More
than one hundred wax figures of noted personages, including one of
Lieutenant-General Scott! -- A curious mortuary memorial to William
Henry Harrison, ten feet high and composed of over two million sea
shells! -- The head and right arm of Anton Probst, murderer of the
Deering family, amputated after execution! -- Phrenological
examinations and charts by Prof. Livingston! -- A diorama of the
heroic death of Colonel David Crockett, including his actual
'buckskin' clothing, his celebrated rifle 'Ol' Betsy,' and his
final farewell letter from the Ala -- "

At that instant, she broke off her recitation with a sharp intake
of breath -- raised her head -- and, in a voice barely louder than
a whisper, gasped: "Oh, dear." That the dismaying truth had finally
dawned upon her awareness was sufficiently plain from her

"So, dear Sissy," I said with a mirthless smile, "there at last is
the answer to your question. Now do you see why I am

Excerpted from THE HUM BUG © Copyright 2001 by Harold
Schechter. Reprinted with permission from Pocket Books, an imprint
of Simon and Schuster. All rights reserved.

The Hum Bug
by by Harold Schechter

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Atria
  • ISBN-10: 0671041150
  • ISBN-13: 9780671041151